Switzerland turns down post Brexit alliance with UK

Didier Burkhalter, the Swiss Foreign Minister (Source: UN Geneva, via Flickr)

By Lydia Jackson

New Brexit problems have arisen this week, this time not with members of the EU, but rather Switzerland, through its rejection of a post Brexit alliance with the UK.

Switzerland has proven a point of inspiration for Brexiteers, with many hoping that Britain’s exit from the European Union could see the undoing of unwanted legislation, yet maintain the strong economic and trade links which are in place at present.

Despite applying for membership to the European Union, Swiss accession never came about. In a 1992 referendum the Swiss public rejected European Economic Area (EEA) membership by 50.3% to 49.7%. This suspended negotiations for EU membership, and the application was formally withdrawn in 2016.

However, Switzerland still has extremely close trade links with the EU and is a leading member of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) alongside Norway, Lichtenstein and Iceland. Switzerland sells over 50% of its exports to the EU. It also has its own trade deals with China, something which EU member states cannot do individually.

Britain was part of the initiation of EFTA in 1952, and used to be a member, before leaving it to join the EEA in 1973.

Switzerland has often been heralded and admired for being an EU independent yet prosperous country, and it would seem as though it is the aim of many to achieve this status through Brexit.

Brexit provides an opportunity for amendment of the bilateral treaties between the Swiss and British governments, and certainly provides scope for greater cooperation between nations as an alternative to integration.

It has emerged this week that the British government had hoped to work alongside Switzerland, a country that is also opposed to the movement of free people as stipulated as part of EU membership, in order to gain access to the Single Market.

This is unsurprising amidst the close relationship between Britain and the Swiss banking sector and pharmaceutical industries, an area which businesses of both states are also keen to protect.

However, May’s aim for an alliance was rejected. As Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter has stated: “We want good, maybe even closer ties with Britain. But we will not forge an alliance with Britain against the EU.”

It is thought that this could be in reference to Switzerland’s current stalemate with the EU as a result of a 2014 referendum leading to the implementation of legislation to restrict the number of EU workers from entering the country.

Free movement of goods, people, services and capital are the four principles the European Single Market is based upon, therefore the Swiss government has faced trade restrictions and cuts to EU funded university research projects and Erasmus schemes as a response.

The Swiss government has consequently conceded on some of its immigration proposals in November last year due to its dependency on EU trade.

Therefore, due to Switzerland’s need to maintain its own EU trade links, and its consequent rejection of an alliance with the British government, it appears as though Theresa May’s Brexit blueprint is still unclear on how it will deliver and secure trade partnerships with reduced tariffs upon the triggering of Article 50, with another avenue seemingly failing to come to fruition in a bid for ‘Hard Brexit’.

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